The Mauryan Empire

Will Collins

Birth of the Empire

The Mauryan Empire was one of the largest empires in the world, and it still holds the title of the largest union to ever rule in the Indian subcontinent, but the subcontinent was not always ruled by large empires. In fact, in 600 BC many small kingdoms were scattered throughout the Indian subcontinent. In 326 BC Alexander the Great brought the Indus Valley under Macedonian control, but he abandoned the area shortly after. That is when Chandragupta Maurya started to seize power. Chandragupta Maurya was the founder of the Mauryan Empire. He was born in the kingdom of Magadha. Magadha was a powerful kingdom centered on the lower Ganges River. Magadha was ruled by the Nanda family. Chandragupta Maurya gathered up an army and killed the unpopular Nanda King, and seized the throne for himself in 321 BC. This was the beginning of the Mauryan Empire.

Map of the Mauryan Empire under Ashoka's control in 250 BC

Chandragupta's Reign

The birth of the Mauryan Empire was only the beginning for Chandragupta. In 305 BC the Mauryan Empire moved northwest and claimed all the land form Magadha to the Indus River. After Alexander the Great died, one of his generals, Seleucus I, inherited part of the empire. Seleucus wanted to reestablish Macedonian control in the Indus Valley, but Chandragupta also wanted control of that region. This conflict led to a battle. Two years later, in 303 BC Chandragupta defeated Seleucus. The Mauryan Empire continued to grow under Chandragupta’s reign, and eventually stretched more than 2,000 miles, thus uniting North India politically for the first time. However, the Chandragupta conquest was an expensive one and required a very large army. Chandragupta’s army had 600,000 foot soldiers, 30,000 horseback troops, and 9,000 war elephants. To pay for the army taxes were very high, for example a farmer had to pay ½ of the value of their harvest to pay for the soldiers. Chandragupta ruled his empire with harsh control. Many of Chandragupta’s political ideas and advice came from a member of the priestly caste named Kautilya. Kautilya wrote a book called the Artha-sastra or the science of material gain. The Arthas-astra was a ruler’s hand book of policies to hold an empire together. The book stated that to hold an empire together spying and political assignation should be in action. Chandragupta followed that advice closely, and his empire became a model for the Artha-Sastra. Despite all the investment in war farmers were exempt from military service and were able to cultivate their land in peace without fear of attack. While in his fifties Chandragupta became fascinated with Jainism. In 301 BC he renounced his rule and had his son, Bindusara, take over. Chandragupta then traveled south to a cave in Shravanabeloga. There he meditated without food or water until he died. This Jain practice is called Shallekhana or santhara.

Did you know....

Chandragupta was so afraid of assassination that he had a servant taste his food before each meal to make sure it wasn't poisoned?

Ashoka and the fall of the empire

In 301 BC Bindusara took the throne and ruled for 32 years. Not much is known of his reign, but his son Ashoka, who next took the throne, was a very famous and important leader. During the first few years of his reign Ashoka followed in his grandfather’s footsteps by waging war to expand his empire, but during a bloody war against the neighboring state of Kalinga Ashoka had a change of heart. During this war, 100,000 soldiers died and even more civilians were lost. Ashoka was horrified by the human sacrifice that went into that war and then devoted himself to studying Buddhism. Eventually Ashoka started to rule the empire according to Buddhist ideas. Ashoka taught the concept of non-violence toward all living beings and acceptance of all people. He built massive stone edicts across the Mauryan Empire inscribed with his new policies. Ashoka also built many new roads and repaired existing ones. He had wells and rest houses built every 9 miles to help weary travelers catch their breath. Ashoka also constructed as many as 84,000 stepas or Buddhist shrines. These acts of kindness showed his concern for his people. During his reign he did not campaign to expand his empire much, and instead he sent many Buddhist missionaries throughout Asia and commissioned some of the finest ancient Indian art. One famous mission was his mission to Sri Lanka, for which Ashoka sent his son Mahindra and daughter Sanghamittaa to Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan king was so pleased by the Buddhist ideals that he became Buddhist himself. During Ashoka’s reign, the Mauryan Empire was at its greatest heights, but after his death in 232 BC the empire fell apart. Regional kings began to challenge the imperial government, and the kingdoms that were loosely connected within the empire regained their independence. The shrunken empire fell victim to invasions, quarrels over ascension, and defections by southern princes. The Mauryan Empire’s last leader was Brihadratha. Brihadratha was killed by his Brahman commander and chief Pushyamita. Pushyamita then went on to found the Shunga Dynasty, which replaced the Mauryan Empire and ruled central Asia for about a century.

Ashoka, the 3rd leader of the Mauryan Empire

Did you know...

Ashoka's son's name, Mahindra translates to "the conqueror of the world"?


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